How To

Tips for Field Judging Elk

A bull elk in Oregon. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

A trophy bull can turn up almost anywhere in elk country but opportunities to take one are rare. When a monster steps out, a hunter often has no time to count antler points, much less compute scores. But not always. Sometimes there’s ample chance to really focus and size up and field judge elk in your search for the bull of a lifetime.

Will you know a world-class trophy if you see one?

“All elk hunters are fascinated by antlers, but not everyone recognizes what it takes to grow trophies. Big headgear is a product of genetics, age and nutrition provided by great habitat,” said David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Learning to field judge antlers will help you understand even more about the elk you’re looking at, whether it’s one for the record books–or one to let walk away and grow up.”

RMEF offers the following general guidelines adapted from material provided by Boone and Crockett Club. For details, read “A Boone and Crockett Club Field Guide to Measuring and Judging Big Game.” Visit www.boone-crockett.org.

Counting Points

Most mature bull elk are 6x6s. An elk’s first antlers are usually spikes. In good habitat, a bull may have a 5-point rack as a 2-1/2-year-old and then a small six-point rack as a 3-1/2-year-old. Its best antlers, however, usually come at age 9-1/2 to 12-1/2, so remember that not every 6×6 is a trophy. Instantly identifying a six-point bull is not difficult. The fourth point, sometimes called the dagger point, is normally the longest point and most distinctive feature of an elk rack. If the main beam goes straight back from the dagger you’re almost certainly looking at a five-point antler. If there’s another point rising upward behind the dagger, perhaps making a horizontal “Y,” then you’re looking at a six-point antler.

A perfect, typical trophy rack has a combination of long points, long beams, good mass and a wide spread. However, some of these criteria are more important than others. Let’s look at each.

Beam Length

Most great elk have long main beams. In the all-time records book, the average beam length of the top 10 typical heads is over 58 inches. However, the average beam length of the bottom 10 is 55-4/8 inches–not much difference. If a bull appears able to “scratch his rear-end with his antlers,” it likely has the frame to be a trophy. No need to spend much more time considering beam length.

Inside Spread

Boone and Crockett records show a wide variation on spreads of trophy elk. Interestingly, the narrowest head in the book outscores the widest, which should be enough to tell you that spread isn’t everything. The top 10 typical entries range from 38-2/8 to 53 inches of inside spread for an average of 46-2/8 inches. The bottom 10 range from 38 to 49-4/8 inches for an average of 42-4/8 inches. Again, not a significant difference. In the field, simply look for a spread that stretches well outside the ears. This should indicate a spread somewhere in the low to mid-40s, and that’s really all you need be concerned about.

Mass

Most really big elk have heavy antlers that carry good mass through the length of the main beam. However, mass is very hard to judge. It’s unusual to have a lot of time to look at a big bull and mass is not where you should spend most of it. Just remember that very few elk considered “big” in the more visible characteristics have thin antlers. When hunting, quickly look for antlers that are visibly as large or larger in circumference than the ear bases, which are about 9 inches around. More importantly, the antlers should maintain that thickness to at least the fifth point.

Tine Length

If you have time to study a bull, really look at the tines. Length of the points is the single most important trophy criteria. The good news is that point length is one of the easiest things to judge because there is a yardstick. On a big American elk, the distance from the burr of the antler to the tip of the nose is about 15-4/8 inches. Let’s start at the bottom of the antlers and work up. A curved brow tine that appears to reach the end of the nose will be about 18 inches long. The next two points are usually shorter, but they still need to approach the burr-to-nose yardstick. Now comes the truth-teller, the dagger point. The dagger point is usually the longest point, and on a monster bull it will be half-again longer than the burr-to-nose yardstick, or even almost double that measurement. On a 6×6, the last point matters a lot. It has to be strong, at least 8 or 10 inches. This is less important if the bull is a 7×7, but you still need some inches in the top of the rack.

For a typical American elk, Boone and Crockett requires a minimum of 360 points to enter the Awards Book, and 375 points for entry into the All-time Records Book. For most bulls, inside spread is only 10-15 percent of its score. Mass is usually less than 20 percent. Beam length is worth close to 25 percent. This math means tine length accounts for about 40 percent of the score, sometimes more but rarely less.

So let’s look through the spotting scope at a really good 6×6 American elk. Get your notebook out. The bull seems to have really long beams, almost scratching his rump. Estimate 55 inches on each side: 110 points. Spread is fairly wide but not noticeably splayed out. Figure 45 inches of inside spread: 45 points. Mass isn’t huge, but pretty good. It starts at a normally heavy 9 inches and keeps it pretty well, maybe 30 inches of circumference on each antler: 60 points. So far, the bull is totaling 215.

Now let’s work out the points. The brow tines curve nicely and seem to pass the tip of the nose, about 18 inches each: 36 points. The next two points are about 16 inches each on both sides: 64 points. The daggers are quite good, about half again longer than the burr-to-nose yardstick. Let’s give them 22 inches each: 44 points. The back fork is also pretty good, about 8 inches on each side: 16 points.

Assuming both sides are equal, with no deductions for lack of symmetry, and you’re looking at a bull that will score 375–a Boone and Crockett-class typical bull!

About the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation:

Snowy peaks, dark timber basins and grassy meadows. RMEF is leading an elk country initiative that has conserved or enhanced habitat on over 5.9 million acres–a land area equivalent to a swath three miles wide and stretching along the entire Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. RMEF also works to open, secure and improve public access for hunting, fishing and other recreation. Get involved at www.rmef.org or 800-CALL ELK.

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Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

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